“Manhattan, Thanksgiving eve, 1945. The war is over, and Eric Smythe’s party was in full swing. All his clever Greenwich Village friends were there. So too was his sister Sara, an independent, outspoken young woman, starting to make her way in the big city. And then in walked Jack Malone, a U.S. Army journalist just back from a defeated Germany, a man whose world view was vastly different than that of Eric and his friends. This chance meeting between Sara and Jack and the choices they both made in the wake of it would eventually have profound consequences, both for themselves and for those closest to them for decades afterwards.”
Thoughts: Douglas Kennedy has a way of capturing the tumult that is life – the swings between highs and lows, the drama, the staleness, and everything in between – and doing so in such a way that utterly captivates the reader. He does so this time while highlighting one of the darkest periods in American post-war history. While the post-WWII era is typically considered one of bucolic happiness, The Pursuit of Happiness explores the fleeting spirit that is happiness and the challenges faced by everyone during the very tumultuous McCarthy era.
Mr. Kennedy uses a change in narrators to the maximum effect. The story starts out as Kate is attending the funeral of her mother. Her father passed a long time ago, and as the reader digs into the narrative, Kate is only just beginning to understand and accept how her life has changed now that she is an orphan, albeit an adult orphan with a child of her own. A reader is immediately drawn into Kate’s likability. She has just gone through a very tough emotional experience and is still fragile. When Sara enters the scene, as an unknown in her family’s past and possible threat, the reader immediately feels protective of Kate. Her unease, concern, fear, and anger becomes the reader’s own emotions. Just as the reader gets comfortable and sympathizes with Kate, he switches to Sara telling her story. Gradually, a reader is drawn into dueling emotions as one cannot help but empathize with Kate while at the same time sympathizing with Sara as she shares her painful familial past. This allows the reader to continue to experience Kate’s unseen reactions as one’s own and drives home the sense of confusion, hurt, wonder, and pity at everything Sara shares.
Mr. Kennedy specializes in addressing little-known or vaguely familiar periods in history and bringing them to life. The Pursuit of Happiness is no different. While taking the reader on an unparalleled emotional roller coaster, Mr. Kennedy includes the horrors inspired by Joseph McCarthy and the Un-American Activities Committee, the fear being named induced in people, what it meant to be blacklisted, and the lengths people were willing to go to avoid being blacklisted. Under Mr. Kennedy’s pen, the McCarthyism scare is eerily reminiscent of today’s war on terror and the all-encompassing Department of Homeland Security, and for that reason deserves to be studied in depth to ensure that Americans do not fall prey to the same mass hysteria that occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The Pursuit of Happiness is one of those books that is completely captivating and thoroughly enjoyable throughout all 592 of its pages. In fact, a reader will not mind the length because the story is so well told. Sara, Eric, and Jack’s stories become more than words on a page, as their characters have a sense of authenticity and reality that makes it easy for readers to believe that this is a work of non-fiction. His ability to understand his characters and allow readers to understand them just as well is only one of the perks of the novel. The others include understanding more of the hysteria that took over the country, the difficulties that befell women and homosexuals at this most conservative of periods, and a story that will affect a reader deeply. As this is the second novel of Mr. Kennedy’s of which I have had the pleasure of reading, he has grown into one of my favorite modern-day authors, and I eagerly anticipate his next novel.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Atria Books for my review copy!